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World War I Tuesday, 3 November, 1998, 11:41 GMT
Legacies of the Great War
battle field devastation
World War I has left a toxic legacy embedded in its battlefields. France Correspondent Kevin Connolly went on location with the bomb disposal experts.

High above the ground the trees hold back the sunlight so it is always cool in the forests that have grown over the old battlefield, always dark, and always silent.

Even the songbirds that left when the savage fighting for Verdun began in 1916 never came back.

It is hard going on the cratered ground left where years of shelling turned flat fields into a wasteland.

The bomb-disposal officers walk with a delicacy surprising in men so big... a reminder that this is not simply haunted ground but a place where the dangers of the past can still reach out to touch the present.

They deliver their stories in snatches over their shoulders as we press on into the forest with each member of the party holding awkward branches out of the path of whoever is falling.

Careless tourists

There are stories of careless tourists and souvenir hunters and "experts" who knew just a little less than they thought who have crippled, poisoned or blown themselves up in the last few years tampering with shells, mines and grenades found lying around.

Eighty years after the guns fell silent the bomb disposal squad from this area is still finding and then defusing or destroying hundreds of tonnes of unexploded ammunition every year.

It sometimes seems that the shadow this Great War cast over this unhappy ground will never lift.

As the shell cases begin to rot, toxic chemicals begin to poison The soil and seep, slowly into the water supply.

Ask how long this work might last and you get a shrug, "Three, four hundred years, hard to say."

At first you are surprised but then you remember that for every square metre of land in this vast region it is said that a ton of explosives fell during World War I and one shell in every four failed to go off.

Painstaking work

The metal detector, alarmingly loud in the silence, goes off almost as soon as it is switched on.

They dig for the shell with patience and care, brushing the soil away from the casing with their fingers as it begins to emerge with infinite delicacy from the widening hole.

To the bomb squad it is routine stuff but even they fall silent as the rusting metal is exposed and they assess how likely it is to go off and whether it was originally filled with gas or explosives.

When the space around the base is cleared and it becomes obvious it has no fuse and is therefore relatively stable it is tugged from the ground and placed with the others we have found.

The work is a wearing combination of the painstaking and back-breaking. Unstable shells can be triggered by the brush of a finger against a worn piece of casing but even the smallest of them weighs as much as a sack of potatoes.

This time it was a German high explosive shell from 1915 but it could easily have been French or American. In the world of bomb disposal only two categories are observed; very dangerous and slightly less dangerous.

'Just another shell'

This slow, careful clearing-up operation has already been going on for 80 years. Its measured rhythm is interrupted only by occasional emergency calls from a foreman whose workers have uncovered a shell or a bomb while re-surfacing a road or laying a water pipe.

On the morning we were there it was a team from the local electricity company whose trench-digging had been held up by the uncovering of a huge high-explosive artillery round.

While one set of bomb-squad officers drove a heavy lorry filled with the shells we had found out to the firing range, we followed the boss out to the roadworks.

The workmen were all standing around with studied nonchalance tapping ash into the trench where the bomb lay lop-sidedly.

One or two of the local householders came out to see what was going on but most of them went back in without waiting to see what happened next when they discovered it was just another shell.

There were no alarms, no sirens, no white tape, no evacuation and no fuss. Just the bomb disposal man jumping into the hall, taking a quick look, and then heaving it up onto the roadside.

No-one even flinched when my colleague who was filming it, asked as you often have to in the world of television for some stages of the process to be repeated.

The 80th anniversary

In the next week you will hear much about the 80th anniversary of the armistice which ended the World War I. It is easy to criticise the way in which journalists seize sometimes rather limply on anniversaries to fill column inches and endless airtime but in this case there is I think nothing wrong with it.

The number of survivors is dwindling with every passing day and the anniversaries will lose much of their emotional power when the last of them is gone.

It occurred to me as we were driving home that night that in France they have perhaps less need of an aid to the remembering.

There are more than 500,000 British and Commonwealth war graves in France most of them far from home in cemeteries meant to re-created an Edwardian country garden -- an idealised vision of what they died for.

There are many more French graves, permanent reminders of the fighting and the dying stretched out along the busy modern roads that the great battles of the war followed at their murderously slow pace.

Let your eyes dwell on the long lines of crosses as your car gathers speed and the endless rows form and reform so that you can almost imagine they are rippling in the wind.

It is a reminder that in western Europe at least, I have lived through a lucky part of this century. I am a member of the first generation of my family ever to make its first visits to Europe with bucket and spade rather than rifle and pack.

I take a final look at the lines of crosses as they fade into the background and hope that luck holds for my nine-year-old son.

Links to more World War I stories are at the foot of the page.

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